Monthly Archives: April 2016

Review: The Inventors and Other Poems by René Char

This is my second review for National Poetry Month and is, once again, another unique volume published by Seagull Books.  The translator of this volume is Mark Hutchinson.

My Review:
The InventorsAs I first read the introduction to this volume, the piece of information that stuck out to me immediately was that Char was influenced by Heraclitus, the pre-Socratic philosopher.  Char imitates Heraclitus’ style of short and puzzling works as well as his theme of strife.  The pre-Socratic course I took in graduate school was one of the most challenging yet rewarding courses in my career as a student.  The Ancient Greek, which is fragmentary, is difficult to put together and even more difficult to analyze when one has come up with an English version. Heraclitus acquired the nickname “The Obscure” for good reason.  I had the same feelings, both of obscurity and difficulty, as I was reading Char.

The poems are in various lengths and some of the are not poems at all, but actually prose that still read like poems.  “Pontoneers” is an excellent example of a shorter work in the Heracletian style:

Two riverbanks are needed for truth: one for our outward

journey, the other for truth’s return. Paths that soak up their

mist.  That preserve our merry laughter intact.  That, even when

broken, are a haven for our juniors, swimming in icy waters.

I could spend a lifetime trying to unpack these few short lines and each time I look at them I find something different.  They are reminiscent to me of Heraclitus’ famous line about never being able to step into the same river twice.  But here Char reminds us of the ever-changing nature of our existence by posing two rivers and suggesting that what we experience, our own personal truth, may be different depending on which path we take.

Char struggles with the idea of existence and whether or not something of us serves in an afterlife.  Sometimes he comes across as a Stoic, such as in these few lines from “Loins.”

In taking leave of the world, we return to what was out there

before the earth and stars were formed; to space, that is.  We

are that space, in all its prodigality.  We return to aerial day and

its black rejoicing.

The Stoic idea that something of us, of our spirit, survives seems to be lurking in these lines.  But there are also times when I thought that Char leaned toward the Epicurean.  A line in “How Did I Ever Get this Late?” stood out to me as particularly Epicurean.  He imagines a deity that sets the human experience in motion but then steps back and has nothing else to do with its own creations.  The “Master Mechanic” watches his own chaos for his amusement:

In the immense community of the heavely clock

face, the Master Mechanic, it would seem, has greased the

motors and slipped away, chuckling, to amuse himself elsewhere.

This volume of poetry is nearly impossible to write a coherent review for.  The selections that are chosen for this edition are a sampling of the poet’s wide range of styles and topics.  Char’s enigmatic messages and obscure writing style are as difficult to unpack as Heraclitus.  But this is absolutely a volume that any lover of poetry will want to have on his or her shelf.  I find that the most challenging volumes of poetry are the most rewarding.

Finally, I have to say something about beautiful book jackets that are all designed by Sunandini Banerjee of Seagull Books.  Each volume is wonderfully colorful and captures the spirit of the poems contained within.

About the Author:
CharHe spent his childhood in Névons, the substantial family home completed at his birth, then studied as a boarder at the school of Avignon and subsequently, in 1925, a student at L’École de Commerce de Marseille, where he read Plutarch, François Villon, Racine, the German Romantics, Alfred de Vigny, Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire.

Char was a friend and close associate of Albert Camus, Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot among writers, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Victor Brauner among painters.

 

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Review: Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

My Review:
B FarrarThe Ashby family has maintained their estate in the south of England for many generations.  The current family members who inhabit the estate are best known for their stables of beautiful horses.  Aunt Bee, the matriarch of the family, oversees the care of her ten-year-old nieces Jane and Ruth.  Bee supervises and runs the horse estate with the help of her niece Elenor and nephew Simon who are young adults.  Although to visit them for afternoon tea, one would believe that this is a happy and well-adjusted family, the Ashby’s have suffered some terrible tragedies.

The reason Aunt Bee has had to take over as parent for her three nieces and her nephew is that their parents died in a tragic airplane crash when Jane and Ruth were only a few months old.  Soon after the parents’ death, Simon’s twin brother committed suicide by throwing himself off of a cliff.  This second tragedy particularly surprised the family because Patrick was such a sweet and well-adjusted boy whom no one suspected was on the brink of taking his own life.

One day, a man walks into their life claiming that he is Patrick, the long-lost Ashby; he says that he didn’t commit suicide but instead ran away, assumed the name of Brat Farrar and spent the last eight years in America where he worked on horse ranches.  Aunt Bee is especially eager to believe Brat’s story and the fact that he looks like an Ashby helps to convince everyone in their immediate circle that Patrick is the long-lost heir.  The only one who seems skeptical about Brat’s identity is Simon.  It is Simon who has the most to lose from Patrick’s reappearance since Simon will no longer be the Ashby heir; the family fortune will revert back to Patrick who is the eldest son.

What I found most unique about this story is that Brat is supposed to be the bad buy in this story, the imposter, the crook.  But Brat’s story is very compelling and he is really not after the Ashby fortune.  Brat grew up in an orphanage and he has never had a family of his own.  When the opportunity to become part of an middle class English family presents itself, Brat’s desire for a sense of belonging and a place to call home prove to be a stronger temptation then the lure of money.

Brat is welcomed into the Ashby home and becomes a part of their everyday lives.  He is an expert horse trainer and he gets along especially well with Elenor for whom he develops more than sisterly feelings..  As he spends quality time with the family, he discovers through various clues that Simon has a sinister and mean side to him.  Simon’s reasons for being angry go much deeper than his disinheritance from the Ashby fortune.  I don’t want to give away too much, but the mystery surrounding Patrick’s disappearance and Simon’s involvement in it were very compelling plot lines and I finished the book very quickly.  I guess this would quality Tey’s book as a page turner.

Tey’s books are written in a classics and charming British style one would expect from a 20th century author.  Her characters are interesting in the sense that they are likeable but can be morally flexible.  Finally, the plot alone is reason enough to pick up this book.

I’ve also read Tey’s The Franchise Affair and enjoyed that book as well.  Has anyone else read any of Tey’s books?  I would love to hear about them.

About the Author:

iteyjos001p1

Josephine Tey was a pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh. Josephine was her mother’s first name and Tey the surname of an English Grandmother. As Josephine Tey, she wrote six mystery novels including Scotland Yard’s Inspector Alan Grant.

The first of these, ‘The Man in the Queue’ (1929) was published under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot , whose name also appears on the title page of another of her 1929 novels, ‘Kit An Unvarnished History’. She also used the Daviot by-line for a biography of the 17th century cavalry leader John Graham, which was entitled ‘Claverhouse’ (1937).

Mackintosh also wrote plays (both one act and full length), some of which were produced during her lifetime, under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. The district of Daviot, nea Josephine Tey was a pseudonym of Elizabeth Mackintosh. Josephine was her mother’s first name and Tey the surname of an English Grandmother. As Josephine Tey, she wrote six mystery novels including Scotland Yard’s Inspector Alan Grant.

The first of these, ‘The Man in the Queue’ (1929) was published under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot , whose name also appears on the title page of another of her 1929 novels, ‘Kit An Unvarnished History’. She also used the Daviot by-line for a biography of the 17th century cavalry leader John Graham, which was entitled ‘Claverhouse’ (1937).

Mackintosh also wrote plays (both one act and full length), some of which were produced during her lifetime, under the pseudonym Gordon Daviot. The district of Daviot, near her home of Inverness in Scotland, was a location her family had vacationed. The name Gordon does not appear in either her family or her history.

Elizabeth Mackintosh came of age during World War I, attending Anstey Physical Training College in Birmingham, England during the years 1915-1918. Upon graduation, she became a physical training instructor for eight years. In 1926, her mother died and she returned home to Inverness to care for her invalid father. Busy with household duties, she turned to writing as a diversion, and was successful in creating a second career.

Alfred Hitchcock filmed one of her novels, ‘A Shilling for Candles’ (1936) as ‘Young and Innocent’ in 1937 and two other of her novels have been made into films, ‘The Franchise Affair’ (1948), filmed in 1950, and ‘Brat Farrar’ (1949), filmed as ‘Paranoiac’ in 1963. In addition a number of her works have been dramatised for radio.

Her novel ‘The Daughter of Time’ (1951) was voted the greatest mystery novel of all time by the Crime Writers’ Association in 1990.

Miss Mackintosh never married, and died at the age of 55, in London. A shy woman, she is reported to have been somewhat of a mystery even to her intimate friends. While her death seems to have been a surprise, there is some indication she may have known she was fatally ill for some time prior to her passing.

 

 

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Review: The Anchor’s Long Chain by Yves Bonnefoy

In order to celebrate National Poetry Month, I decided to review some of the poetry collections from Seagull Books.  Thanks so much to Naveen for sending me some beautiful offerings from their catalogue.  First up is an edition of Bonnefoy’s poetry translated by Beverley Bie Brahic.

My Review:
Layout 1This collection of poems begins with a series of short pieces that have some common themes, the most striking of which is a reflection on memory.  The poems appear to the reader as snippets of the poet’s memory as he is trying to reflect on pieces of his life that have passed.   Sometimes the images are very clear and precise.  For example, the end of one poem reads:

 

Do you remember

Our first bedroom?  Do you remember the ad

Flowered wallpaper?  We wanted to strip it off

Only there was other paper underneath,

Layers of it,

And the last, on the grey plaster, newsprint,

With words from the other century

That we rolled under our wet fingers. At last

We craped the wall clean with pen knives.

You were laughing, so was I, night was falling.

But the images that flit across the poet’s memory are not always this transparent.  He oftentimes struggles to grasp at a fleeting memory and it is at these times where the poetry also becomes more blurred for the reader.  One of the most poignant images that he evokes to demonstrate his frustration at the ephemeral nature of memory is that of the Greek god Erebus:

Oh, memories: our Erebus,

A great shapeless sob is at the bottom of us.

Erebus is the perfect symbol for Bonnefoy’s struggle with memory as he is grasping around the dark recesses of his mind to find his past.  As I noted above, the passages in which his memory is not clear come across as muddled and harder for the reader to understand.  One such passage, which I read over and over, is:

She dreams

She is up on the ladder, she knocks at the

closed door.

The engines roar.

Fro the plane’s belly no one responds

And the world takes off.

She hangs there adrift between birth and death

In the calm sky,

The sky where just a few puffs of cloud

Melt into the blue, that is, God–no, the eternal.

One more aspect of these poems that I have to mention is the recurring images of the ocean, the sand and the waves.  They are prominently feature in these short pieces and these images seem to have made an especially lasting impression on the poet’s memory.  He remembers a relationship with a woman as they are walking on the beach; he remembers a summer’s eve when he is crumbling up newspapers to make a fire by the sea.

The next part of the collection actually features short pieces of prose.  Each of these short stories, which I would argue can be considered flash fiction, revolve around the innocence of childhood.  The most striking story is the one entitled “The Long Name.”  The story begins with a boy wandering in the woods and he hears what he thinks is singing.  He stumbles upon a little girl who is setting out things for her tea.  The boy learns that the little girl is a princess and the song isn’t a song at all but her servant calling out her extremely long name.  The girl, who is a princess, explains why the king gave her such a long name.  These stories all have a fairytale quality to them and the poet seems to  envy the innocence and simplicity of childhood.  A little girl who wants to play with her toys and have tea should not be burdened by the adults in her life with such a long and cumbersome name.

The final part of the collection features a series of nineteen sonnets.  I so much enjoyed reading these and I have read a few of them over and over again.  This is the type of poetry collection that will sit on my coffee table and I will pick up and will reread and find something different and interesting every time.  Many of the sonnets are tributes, a tombeau in the French as the note in the text tells us, to artists and writers of the past.  The collection starts with a tribute to Leon Battista Alberti and also includes sonnets about Maupassant, Descartes and Poussin.

My favorite sonnet, which should be no surprise to anyone who knows about my classics background, is the one entitled “Ulysses Sails Past Ithaca.”  In this poem we are given an image of Ulysses as he sail past a place he once knew as his home of Ithaca.  “Remember, with the bees and olive tree,/ The faithful wife and the old dog.”  But this is all gone now, just a fading memory.  The poem ends with the wish that Ulysses might be able to go back to the child he once was that played in the surf.   This sonnet ties together the entire collection perfectly; in its subtle nod to the poetry of Homer the poet uses the images of the fleeting nature of memory and the innocence of childhood.

This is a difficult collection of poetry to review because it is impossible to capture its brilliance in a few short paragraphs.  Thanks to Seagull Books for translating and bringing to English readers this beautiful and thought-provoking collection.

About the Author:
Y BonnefoyYves Bonnefoy (born June 24, 1923) is a French poet and essayist. Bonnefoy was born in Tours, Indre-et-Loire, the son of a railroad worker and a teacher.

His works have been of great importance in post-war French literature, at the same time poetic and theoretical, examining the meaning of the spoken and written word. He has also published a number of translations, most notably Shakespeare and published several works on art and art history, including Miró and Giacometti

 

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Review: Diary of a Short-sighted Adolescent by Mircea Eliade

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Istros Books.

My Review:
Short Sighted AdolescentAs a seventeen-year old adolescent living in the capitol of Romania in the twentieth century, Eliade faces the typical struggles of every teenage boy.  Eliade records his thoughts in his diaries with the hopes that he will eventually turn his writings into a novel.  When the entries in this diary begin, he is spending most of his time attending school at the lycee, hanging around with his friends and reading voraciously in his bedroom attic.  He is trying to figure out what the plot of his novel will be and decides he wants to have a hero as the center character of his novel.  He introduces us to his friends, especially Robert and Dinu, whom he contemplates basing the novel of his hero on.

Eliade also wants to include some sort of a romantic relationship in his novel but his lack of experience with girls frustrates him.  He asks a female cousin for advise and uses his imagination to dream about possibilities of a romantic plot line in his book.  Eliade believes that he is ugly and awkward and he often dwells on his lack of self-esteem throughout his diary.  His ignorance of the opposite sex, as evidenced by a few hilarious and awkward episodes that are described in his diary,  further increase his insecurity.

The struggles Eliade encounters at the lycee are, in my experience as a teacher, fairly typical of a teenage boy.  He would rather be doing a million other things than attending classes and he is easily distracted by his friends and his favorite books.  Eliade’s most dreaded classes are math and German.  He tells us the story of a humiliating experience in which he is called by the math teacher to solve a homework problem on the blackboard.  Eliade didn’t even attempt the homework and has no idea what he is doing.  When he can’t manage to copy the problem correctly the teacher becomes exasperated with him and makes he retake his seat.  He encounters similar stressful episodes in his German classes.  Despite failing grades and disappointed teachers, Eliade is never motivated to be more studious with his school work.

Eliade’s procrastination is a common theme throughout his diaries and his struggle against this procrastination makes for some funny scenes.  He decides that he will cram for his math exams and makes a strict schedule to reread his math book in the few days leading up to his exam.  He always finds something to distract him from his studies; he reads a book, talks a walk, has a nap and basically does anything but study for his exam.  His novel, likewise, never comes to fruition despite his plans that are outlined at the beginning of his diary.  As his diary entries continue, he mentions the novel less and less frequently.  The one thing in his life that keeps his attention are his books.  As a rabid bibliophile myself, I related to Eliade’s obsessive love of books.

Eliade shows us that adolescence is a struggle that all humans experience as a rite of passage.  We have all gone through that awkward phase during which we are still considered children but are looking forward to adulthood and the responsibilities that are not far away.  At one point in the diary Eliade is playing cops and robbers and throwing dirt at his friends.  In another episode he is frustrated with his lack of romantic and physical relationships so he seeks out prostitutes to fulfill his desires.  The end of the diary takes on a more melancholy tone as Eliade realizes that he will soon be graduating from the lycee and the comforting space of his attic room will not always be his.

This book is a philosophical commentary on what it means to step out of childhood and into the dark and scary world of adulthood.  Sometimes funny, sometimes contemplative, and sometimes sad this book will appeal to a wide range of readers.   Thanks to Istros Books for bringing this timeless classic to a new generation of English readers.

About the Author:
mircea-eliade-young_56d0650fb2d02_250x800rMircea Eliade was born in 1907 in Bucharest, the son of an army officer. He lived in India from 1928-1932, after which he obtained a doctorate in philosophy with a thesis on yoga, and taught at the University of Bucharest for seven years. During the war he was a cultural attaché in London and Lisbon, and from 1945 taught at the École des haut études in Paris and several other European universities.

In 1957 he took up the chair of history of religion at the University of Chicago, a post that he held until his death in 1986. Fluent in eight languages, his extensive body of work includes includes studies of religion and the religious experience that remain influential, such as The Sacred and the Profane, and numerous works of literature, including The Forbidden Forest, Bengal Nights and Youth without Youth, both of which were adapted for the screen. – See more at: http://istrosbooks.com/products/authors/mircea-eliade-67/#sthash.bpqkp6oR.dpuf

 

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Review: Hill by Jean Giono

I received an advanced review copy of this title from NYRB classics.  The original title was written and published in French in 1928 and this English edition has been translated by Paul Eprile.

My Review:
HillFour families live quiet and simple lives at the foot of a hill in Provence in the early twentieth century.  Their small community consists of four white houses and a small shack for an old bachelor that also lives among these peasants.  Their days consist of working the land, drinking wine and telling stories.  But their bucolic life is threatened when day when a black cat crosses their paths.

Janet, the eldest of the group, has lived at the foot of this hill for most of his life and the last time that this black cat came around it also meant trouble for their little village.  Janet’s son-in-law, a man named Gondran, as well as the other neighbors are all on high alert as they are anticipating some kind of calamity to happen to them.  The peasants believe in many old wives tales and different forms of superstition and to them a black cat is the ultimate sign of bad fortune about to strike.

When their well runs dry and they are desperate for water, the villagers decide that it is finally time to consult Janet about what to do.  But Janet is on his deathbed and spends his days laying in bed and mumbling gibberish.  Janet also has strange visions and at one point he thinks there are snakes coming out of his fingernails.  They are doubtful as to whether or not they can pry some useful information out of this delirious old man.

What Janet gives them is a beautiful and timeless commentary on mother earth and a lesson on how we ought to treat and respect nature.  Janet paints for them a picture of an earth where everything is alive and has feeling.  Every time we chop down a tree, or drive a spade into the dirt or hunt an animal the earth feels it and it hurts her.  The idea that the earth senses pain and actually cries out every time we use a foreign object to dig into the soil was one of the most powerful points in the book for me.

Giono personifies the earth through language rich with spiritual terms; he imagines a supreme protector of the earth who walks around in a sheep skin that was gifted to him by the animals.  And humans have harmed earth so much that the kindly, supreme being can no longer heal her many wounds.

The commentary on the spirituality of nature and our abuse and misuse of the limited resources that the earth gives us is a timely theme that we continue to discuss in the twenty-first century.  We must realize that the pollutants we put into the air, the poisons we put into the ground and the extraction of natural resources all have a negative effect on our environment.  Giorno’s words are just as applicable today as they were almost one-hundred years ago when he wrote this brief yet powerful little story.

The plot itself of this book is not necessarily a page-turner, but the inspirational language and social commentary are well worth the read.

About the Author:
Jean GionoJean Giono, the only son of a cobbler and a laundress, was one of France’s greatest writers. His prodigious literary output included stories, essays, poetry,plays, filmscripts, translations and over thirty novels, many of which have been translated into English.

Giono was a pacifist, and was twice imprisoned in France at the outset and conclusion of World War II.

He remained tied to Provence and Manosque, the little city where he was born in 1895 and, in 1970, died.

Giono was awarded the Prix Bretano, the Prix de Monaco (for the most outstanding
collected work by a French writer), the Légion d’Honneur, and he was
a member of the Académie Goncourt

 

 

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